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  • Adapt or Die, Known Text or Non-Text: Irish Theater in 2009
  • Ciara O’Dowd

As Irish theater companies negotiated the minefield of Arts Council funding that was 2009, the proposition “Adapt or Die” took on a new significance. Closely allied to this, theater practioners faced another dilemma, the choice of “Known text or Non-text.” 2009 witnessed a dearth in new writing and a profusion of adaptations on the Irish stage. Many companies reverted to classic texts, while others chose to eschew any kind of traditional narrative, seeking an entirely fresh form of expression. Often, multimedia and recent technologies were central to the new mode of production. These opposing trends—one in the direction of canonical work, and the other tending toward innovation—were intertwined, and linked to the worsening economic situation and its social ramifications. Should theater companies have been rejecting the texts and tenets of the past to find new ways to address our national plight? Or is the well-worn path of adaptation the one that offers a route through to the next decade?

The year began with one of Ireland’s most respected and experimental theater artists, Olwen Fouéré, bringing to life an iconic Dublin literary character, Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer. But as the Irish Times noted, this was an attempt to “take on the literature without asking to be taken literally.”1 Fouéré revived the role of Paula Spencer: la femme qui se cognait dans les portes, through Théâtre de l’Eveil and director Michel Abécassis’s adaptation of both novels, The Woman Who Walked into Doors and Paula Spencer, performed in French with English subtitles. This was Mrs. Spencer as we had not seen her before: flowing silver locks, fur coat and oversized sunglasses. Uprooted from her Dublin locale in Abécassis’s version, the only remaining direct links to the novels were the names of her children. Fouéré gave a mesmeric performance, and Doyle’s story of abuse, suffering, and survival took on an elemental quality when transposed to a new, imaginary space carved out with atmospheric lighting and a languorous jazz soundtrack. [End Page 143]

Also in January, the “Known text or Non-text” debate was broached when Brokentalkers presented In Real Time in the same space in Temple Bar’s Project Arts Centre. The piece opens with a request for the spectators to read aloud dialogue from an enormous screen suspended over the stage—a request for audience engagement of a very different type. By means of a video link, actress Dolores Bouckaert—“Dolly,” to her friends and in the show—introduces herself. She is in Ghent, in an apartment on a busy street, with her webcam. The audience wonders if this is her home or a film set. She is about to perform with an Irish actor, recruited for this show only and unrehearsed. He is equipped with an earpiece; there is no script and his only direction will come from Dolly. There was something arresting and brave about Brokentalkers’ experiment. A webcam glitch or a shaky server connection could mean waving goodbye for the night to the audience. Yet, the risks that Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, the artistic directors behind the Brokentalkers project, take are always greater than the purely practical. There is no plot, there are no characters; the delivery is devoid of pretence and artifice. But the performance was compelling and heartfelt. The multimedia approach, and the intimacy and estrangement it exposes in this setting, served as the dramatic core of the piece.

If Fouéré wanted to take on literature without taking it literally, then Sligo’s Blue Raincoat Theatre Company wanted to transform a literary text into something physical and fantastical. The Blue Raincoats have often collaborated with adapter and dramaturg, Jocelyn Clarke. He is familiar with their corporeal mime style, but not directly involved in the ensemble work. Within this full and faithful adaptation of The Third Policeman, are spaces where Blue Raincoat’s physicality and unique aesthetic gleam through O’Brien’s narrative.

Is it about a bicycle? This production is about the text, and it explicitly makes the text physical. The centerpiece of Jamie...


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pp. 143-151
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